Melissa Pettignano of Secaucus wears a lot of hats, describing herself as an “author, entrepreneur, inspirational speaker, and professional music artist.” Now she can add another feather to her cap: the recipient of the “Unsung Hero” Young Person of Distinction Award for 2014.
The award was for her various community efforts, “but the main focus was September 11. My outreach on September 11 had to do with going to the [9/11] museum and speaking to children, helping them cope,” she said.
Pettignano lost her beloved aunt, Arlene Babakitis of Secaucus, in the World Trade Center attacks. The incident encouraged Pettignano to give back more to the community and help others to the best of her ability.
“As a young girl I loved to help people,” said the 26-year-old, who has lived in town since she was 7. “My family was always giving back, so it was ingrained in me. Growing up I got involved with different organizations. Once 9/11 happened I wanted to do more.”
Pettignano received the “Unsung Hero” Young Person of Distinction Award and a proclamation from the Town of Secaucus for bringing “honor and pride to her family and community.”
People of Distinction is a CBS radio show hosted by Al Cole. After Pettignano was a guest on the program, she was nominated for the annual award. The ceremony took place on Tuesday, Oct. 28 at the City University of New York Graduate Center, with recipients receiving awards in various categories.
In addition to receiving the Young Person of Distinction Award at the event, Pettignano was presented with a proclamation from the Town of Secaucus, given to her by Secaucus Community Outreach Coordinator Lee Penna on behalf of Mayor Michael Gonnelli, in recognition of her bringing “honor and pride to her family and community.”
A world of interests
Recently Pettignano has been involved in sending clothing to Africa. In addition, “Ever since I was younger my family and I are heavily involved with persecuted Christians,” she said. “They don’t speak a lot about persecuted Christians; they put it under the rug. I feel it’s important they have the help they need.”
Pettignano has also worked on suicide prevention and anti-bullying initiatives. The latter was inspired in part from her own experiences in school.
“Growing up I didn’t like seeing kids bullied,” she said. “There were a lot of kids in school who said different things out of jealousy. I dealt with a lot of kids that were jealous of me and said things that weren’t so nice. I always stood my ground. I always prayed for them and wanted the best for them.”
In fact, Pettignano’s experiences as a youngster led to her writing a book of short stories titled Suzanne Lantana, after the main character. “I released that book when I was 18 back in 2007 but I started writing it when I was 6,” she said. A teacher at school encouraged her to continue writing and to consider publishing her collected tales as a book. And so she did.
The stories are a mix of fact and fiction, illustrating different events in the life of Suzanne Lantana, including one very personal story dealing with 9/11. So how close is Suzanne Lantana, who lives in an unnamed town very much like Secaucus, to the actual Melissa Pettignano?
“Suzanne Lantana definitely embodies a lot of who I am,” she said. “Not an alter ego but somebody with the strength and tolerating no nonsense and loving people and wanting what’s right in the world.”
A second book has already been completed, according to Pettignano, entitled Suzanne Lantana: High School Days. “It will tackle what she encounters in high school – relationships, abusive relationships, parties, school, many different things an average teenager would go through – and how she uses coping skills to overcome certain things.”
Singer and entrepreneur
Not content with being an author and “unsung hero” (and sometimes model), Pettignano aspires to be a “sung” hero. She has written and recorded music that is available on the Internet, and is working on her first full-length release.
“I’ve always sung since I was a little girl, performing with my family at different events,” she said, adding that she sang at school and church functions.
Music, in fact, has always been a priority in her life. In tenth grade she decided it was time to focus on career and left high school. “I talked with my family and said its time to be home-schooled; I want to go with my career full throttle.”
She hopes to release her book and album within six months to a year and follow them up with promotional tours. Currently, however, that is on hold while she recovers from a car accident she had two years ago, for which she continues to receive treatment.
In the interim, she founded a publishing company, M. Pettignano Enterprises, LLC, in May of 2013, with the intent of finding talented writers and musicians. “My goal is to sign potential authors for book publishing in one section, and in the other to sign musicians and bands. Once I sign them we would promote them as artists,” she said.
Continuing to work with her family – with her mom on charitable initiatives, with her dad on music – Pettignano said, “I’m very grateful, very blessed, and thankful for my support system. I love to give back, to see people living out their divine purpose.”
To find out more about Pettignano and her projects, visit www.suzannelantana.com.
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.